If you are the parent of a child who experiences night terrors, you know these are no ordinary nightmares. It will seem as if your child has suddenly become possessed! Your child, in the throes of a night terror, might suddenly bolt upright, shout and scream in defense and be utterly inconsolable regardless your efforts to calm them. Their breathing may be rapid, their heart pounding out of their chest, and they may be sweating, thrashing around for several minutes until they finally calm down and return to sleep.
Night terrors can often leave parents nearly as traumatized as it seems their child is during an episode. Usually the child going through a night terror isn't even aware that you are trying to calm them down, and when you ask them the next day about their nightmares, you discover they have absolutely no memory of them.
That's because night terrors are not nightmares at all, but a disruption to sleep that occurs during transitional sleep between deep Stage 3 sleep and lighter REM or non-REM stages.
Night terrors occur during the first three hours of the night. These passages between sleep stages are smooth, but they can lead to stress responses in the child. Children's bodies and brains are still developing, and changes in growth hormones and other brain chemistry might be at work at this time. Thus, this physical (not emotional) expression of fear, caused by the sudden release of stress hormones into the bloodstream, can panic the child, leading to a full-blown, dramatic episode of terror.
Anyone who has witnessed a child in the middle of a night terror knows to put the emphasis on the word Terror, as this is an extremely accurate representation of what happens.
Dreams and nightmares, on the other hand, are the fodder of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and never happen in deep Stage 3 sleep. Consider this: during REM sleep, the body is more or less paralyzed from the neck down as part of the brain's effort to keep one from acting out the compelling content of dreams. If your child is terrified in the night but does not move about, and the episode occurs later in the night, they might be having a nightmare. You also might have better luck consoling them, and they stand a good chance of remember the content of their bad dream in the morning because in REM sleep, visual imagery is processed and remembered. In stage 3 sleep there is no imagery for the brain to process.
The good news? Night terrors are actually normal and do not suggest any underlying medical condition. Kids grow out of them, thankfully, so parents can hope for more peaceful nights as their children age.